By John Rice
Could Forest Park become the site of the "Mini-Ravinia of the Western Suburbs?" This is the vision of Forest Park resident Ralph Di Febo for the Altenheim property. Di Febo, who has his master's degree in urban planning from Loyola University, has worked for the Cook County Assessor's Office for 30 years. He also owns and manages several residential properties in Forest Park. More importantly, he's a resident who wants Forest Park to maintain its green space and use it to enhance the lives of its citizens.
He first got the idea two and a half years ago, when then-Commissioner Chris Harris asked for input about the property. Di Febo and his small committee have worked tirelessly since then to come up with their Cultural Park concept.
On Nov. 24, Di Febo gave a presentation at the Kiwanis Club of Forest Park meeting at Brian Boru. Harris was on hand, as well as Commissioner Rachell Entler and other interested parties. The presentation began with breathtaking aerial footage of the Altenheim area, filmed from a drone. Then Di Febo launched into his PowerPoint, ably assisted by his wife, Andrea.
"My dream," he said, "is to build a park that will make Forest Park a destination for relaxation and entertainment."
He distributed a map of the property, which included a bandshell and concert area with an estimated 7,200 seats. Di Febo uses the term "mini-Ravinia" but does not foresee a heavy concert schedule like the Highland Park venue. He would like to host eight big concerts a year to pay for the construction and upkeep of the park. He's already consulted with Jam Productions about the feasibility of the project.
The park would include a water retention area to prevent flooding. This would necessitate a terraced berm that would be used for seating and to contain sound. The concert lawn would be dotted with speaker poles, like Ravinia. "It would associate Forest Park with the arts," Di Febo said, "and bring direct and indirect revenue to Madison Street."
The park would also feature a permanent structure for a Farmers Market, a playground and lawn and picnic areas. As Di Febo observed, most of Forest Park's greenspace is dedicated to athletics. It would be great to have a place where people could relax, take walks and toss a Frisbee. There would be a sculpture garden, a concession building and a half-mile walking path with exercise equipment.
As for its viability as a music venue, Altenheim has many advantages over Ravinia. The 8-acre parcel has the same lawn space as Ravinia and an equal number of parking spaces: 1,500. But its location is much more accessible, being served by three rail lines and I-290. Ravinia is a difficult destination to reach from the west suburbs. It's either a long drive with remote parking or an interminable train ride.
Another benefit of creating Cultural Park is that it would be a confined space, where the village could host other events, like 4th of July fireworks, Summerfest and other events that were cancelled due to inappropriate crowd behavior. "Concerts will generate revenue for the park. Madison Street businesses could market at the park," Di Febo said, "It will give greater exposure to Forest Park. It will be an economic engine because we are no longer the exclusive 'bar town' in the area."
He acknowledged many variables to consider before determining the total cost of the project. Brian Peterson is an architect/urban planner who created the map and addressed costs.
"We need to bring in the public," Peterson said, "and make it a community plan. We could present drawings to donors, commercial developers and sponsors." He added that the design would be refined, based on drainage, traffic studies and building surveys.
"It's an overwhelming plan," Peterson acknowledged, "but we could break it down into stages. It doesn't have to be built in one piece."
Di Febo agreed that the park could be built in stages, as revenue is generated by concerts and smaller events. He and his committee have generated a 72-page report for the village's Planning Commission.
"I'm at the point where I need some encouragement."
Di Febo received plenty of positive feedback. "I have a million questions," Entler began, "but your enthusiasm is exciting. We want to keep this as greenspace. There could be some overlap with plans for the Roos property and we have to consider whether the town is big enough to support two venues."
After his presentation, Di Febo expressed the desire to partner with the Kiwanis Club of Forest Park to apply for a $50,000 grant from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation. "They are giving the grant for the next big idea to transform communities." Kiwanis agreed to this arrangement. They are hoping the grant could finance the next steps in the planning process outlined by Peterson.
Regardless of the outcome, the Kiwanians were impressed that Di Febo, along with his committee, had poured so much time and effort into making his adopted hometown a better place to live.